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What is the Difference Between Emotional Intelligence and Empathy?

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

Researching and learning more about how to improve my leadership abilities and relationships two words kept popping up “Emotional Intelligence” and “Empathy”. Growing up I heard a lot about empathy, but only recently has Emotion Intelligence become something discussed with great importance.

So what is the difference between emotional intelligence and empathy? Emotional intelligence is the ability to use your thoughts and feelings to manage your emotions, have them match the situation you are in, and know how to manage the emotions of others. Empathy is the ability to experience another person’s emotions and feel what the other person is feeling. It is a piece of emotional intelligence.

Both of these affect a person’s ability to connect with other people. Though they are different they require one another. How is each of these shown? How do they affect our relationships with others?


As the adage goes, “empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes”. For some, this is far easier said than done, for others, it is too easy and they deeply feel what others are going through, to the point where it can debilitate their decision-making abilities.

Having empathy at the right times and in the right amount is what makes all the difference.

If a team or partner is relying on you for support during a difficult time, sitting in the room crying with them may not be the best response – this is where emotional intelligence comes in. Instead, it will be important to recognize that the situation is scary, overwhelming or stressful for them.

To be empathetic you do not need to feel emotions as deeply as the person experiencing them. This is especially true when it is not something we have gone through ourselves, else we seem insincere and fake.

An example of this is a pet owner when listening to the issues of their friend who has a young child, who relates the situation by saying they understand; their pet does the same thing. Though the intention may be pure, the situation and experience are not the same, and thus should not be compared.

In these situations, it is best to try and understand what it is like for the person. We can ask questions and seek to understand what they are going through at a deeper level. By doing this we can more clearly relate and feel the other person’s emotions, even without fully understanding their current situation.

A shared experience can become a very powerful tool in enhancing the relationship between people. This is frequently seen in sports teams, the military, families who go through life changes together, and survivors of tragic events. Though they each have their own experience from one another, they can empathize on a much deeper level with those that went through the same things because more of their emotions and experiences will have been shared.

What’s the Difference Between Empathy vs Sympathy?

Sympathy is when you feel an emotion towards someone through perception or understanding. Empathy is when you feel emotions with someone, from their perspective, based on how you would feel in their situation.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence takes empathy to the next level by combining it with other skills. It becomes more than having emotions, seeing emotions and sharing emotions; it’s about learning to master how emotions can be used and managed within ourselves and others.

This involves multiple components that form how emotionally intelligent a person is.


As discussed above


How well do you know yourself? The more self-aware a person is the better they can understand and accept not only their strengths but also what limitations they have.

A self-aware person can apply their skills in a meaningful way to those around them. Once we know and identify our weaknesses we are better able to manage them.

If certain words or situations bring up large, negative emotions and memories for you, identify them. Write these down and be aware of them.

Some examples of this

  • Wearing shoes in the house

  • Sound of chewing with mouth open

  • Hearing others biting nails

  • Taping/patting someone’s head

  • Resting your arm/hand on someone’s shoulder

  • Giving/receiving hugs

  • Use of outdated words/terminology to refer to others

  • Talking about a negative situation

  • Discussing being terminated

  • Discussing death

  • Comments about your body

  • Comments about other nutrition or meal choices

  • Ways to personalize the workspace

  • Celebrated holidays

  • Song choices


Once we identify where our strengths and weakness are we are given the opportunity to do something about them.

If some specific words or actions trigger you to boil up inside or completely shut down, decide what is within your power to do in these moments that will lead to your desired outcome.

Recognize that the majority of people, especially those that do not know you well or have shared your experience, will not have the same triggers. As such, they will not be sensitive to how these words or actions make you feel. Most people aim to treat others with respect, and if they don’t, saying something will at least start the process of holding them accountable for their words and actions.

Just because you have identified that something is a trigger does not mean others around will change or adapt. Ultimately you are the one in control and are responsible for your emotions, reactions, and behaviors. The easiest way to help people change is by giving them solutions to what they are doing that triggers you. If it is a bigger issue or something ongoing, explain to them or someone in a position of authority why it affects you and the impact that these words, behaviors or actions are having.


Get clear on what is driving you, what is important to you and what you want to achieve. If you can identify which relationships or people are important you will have an easier time justifying the additional time it will take to understand and act with emotional intelligence to someone else.

This awareness will also assist you in correcting your actions and behaviors if something did not go well during the initial interaction. If we desire to have an ongoing relationship with another person, it is in our best interest to find new ways to behave and speak that will bring about and maintain this relationship.

As an example, if you need to deliver the news to your team that, due to cutbacks, there will be no bonuses this year, there are multiple ways in which this can be done.

  1. Avoid the situation until the day they are to receive their bonus then tell them, “There is no bonus”

  2. Send out an email once you know stating there will be no bonuses

  3. Send an email stating there will be no bonuses and they can come and speak to you if they have any questions

  4. Call a mandatory group meeting and say there will be no bonuses

  5. Invite everyone to a meeting and tell them that you have some news you need to share with them and after you will answer as many questions as you can

  6. Speak to the person you have received this information from and ask if there is an alternative to giving bonuses, ie extra day off, ability to work a flexible schedule, smaller financial rewards, or other non-financial perks your team can discuss and agree on. Call a meeting to tell everyone the news, let them know they can ask questions and offer some solutions or come up with a different way to show your team that you appreciate them.

What would you need, or ask for in their situation? What, from your knowledge about them, do you think they need?

When we are motivated to do our best for others, to care about their well-being, at the end of the day we form a relationship that will push you towards your goals.

A leader that leads from their motivations can make difficult decisions with a sound mind and judgment. Though they may feel bad about the decision, they know it will ultimately lead to a reward for the individual, team or others involved.

Social skills

How you choose to communicate and interact will form the lens they see you through.

Social skills include both our verbal and non-verbal language, how we act, our body language, appearance, and gestures. Each environment has its own set of norms and when a person is unaware of, or chooses to not respect these norms, issues can occur.

Some examples of this are being quiet in a place of worship, what to wear or bring as a gift to a bridal shower (informal vs formal) or language used when speaking to client vs co-workers.

Most people can think of at least a few times where they or someone they knew was viewed as being socially unacceptable.

When we tap into our emotional intelligence we can see things that, when being stuck in our own world and head, we would otherwise miss. These misses can mean a lot to another person and may result in an “I don’t know what I did wrong” situation.

Think of your culture and social norms, if someone came in without knowing about you, would there be things they could inadvertently do to offend you without knowing?

How to Improve Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

The biggest thing to recognize is that the improvement of empathy and emotional intelligence is an ongoing process. As you grow and change, so will your experiences, your views, and your assumptions. That will require an ongoing understanding of yourself and those around you.

There are several things to keep in mind if you want to improve your abilities.

Learn to Manage Yourself

The easiest and most difficult thing to do when learning a personality skill is to asses ourselves. Look at how you react in certain situations.

  • Are there times that you feel out of control?

  • In what situations do you feel you are the only one in control?

  • When do people come to you for help?

  • What do you do to help them with their emotions, or do you only offer problem-focused solutions?

By deciding to manage our emotions we are gaining control over the outcomes we expect and our future. When we can manage the emotions that come up, we are put in the driver’s seat and allowed to create success from adversity. We can use our emotions as a tool to achieve our goals and strengthen our bonds with others.

Become a Better Listener

When we openly listen to another person’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and views, we can gain perspective. Through this, we understand more about them and ourselves and how each person fits into the other world.

When you know what works, does not work and motivates a person you are better able to work with them, utilizing their strengths and managing their weaknesses. This can all be done by learning to become a better active listener.

You will gain an advantage both personally and professionally by understanding a person more clearly and knowing their motivations and fears.

When we listen to others, they will also be more willing to listen to us and be there when we need assistance, support or congratulations.

Act with Kindness

When we act with genuine kindness, we show others we care about them as members of our family, team, community, or the human race.

By becoming a good Samaritan, you actively force yourself to engage with others, causing connection. By helping when you are needed or when you see an opportunity you will also be helping yourself. Kindness is shown to help our brains and our bodies, releasing hormones, resulting in happiness, more creative thinking, and empathy; all great things for us to become more emotionally intelligent and generally successful.

Keep Learning About Yourself

The more you learn about yourself the easier it will be to understand others. By looking at past experiences, current motivations, fears, concerns, and hopes we are better able to relate to others and see things from their perspectives.

As humans, we are always changing and growing, getting stronger in some areas and weaker in others. We prioritize what does and does not work for us, what we believe, hold true and let go of.

The more we understand our journey and our current state the easier it will be to see ourselves in others and act appropriately to their current state, predict the best way to handle a situation and help them through what they are going through.

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